Your guide to C-section recovery: Timeline, tips and what to expect as you heal
A C-section is major surgery, mama. Here’s what to know to take care of yourself during those first few months.
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It doesn’t matter if it’s planned or unexpected—C-section recovery takes time. What other major surgery (and yes, mama, a C-section is considered major surgery) sends you home to care for a new little human while also healing yourself? And don’t forget that your body has undergone a complete transformation over the past 10 months, which requires its own recovery even without the C-section.
Depending on your state, 20% to nearly 40% of babies delivered in the U.S. are born by C-section, states the CDC. Still, each mama’s experience can be so different. You may even have two very different postpartum journeys if you have more than one C-section. The best thing you can do for yourself and your new little one is to be gentle and expect it to take some time to feel like yourself again.
This guide will cover what to expect during a C-section recovery, including what to expect in the early days and weeks, C-section scarring, swelling, sex after a C-section, and more.
Related: What to expect during a C-section
How long does it take to recover from a C-section?
At a minimum, it can take eight weeks for your C-section incision to heal, but fully recovering from pregnancy, birth, and surgery can take even longer.
A C-section includes two incisions: one on the lower abdomen and one on the uterus. The abdominal incision may be closed with dissolvable stitches, staples, or glue. Your uterine incision will be closed with dissolvable stitches.
Related: Recovering from my C-section was harder than I imagined
Most C-section mamas say they don’t feel “back to normal” until around the 12-week mark post-C-section. And for some, it can take even longer to feel “normal” again.
Let’s look at those first weeks in more detail:
C-section recovery timeline: Week by week
The first few days post-C-section are often a blur. You may be in some pain and discomfort and probably pretty exhausted. Most women stay in the hospital for two to three days after a C-section to ensure they’re comfortable walking to the bathroom, eating and drinking, and pain is well controlled. Gas pains from excess air trapped in your abdominal area and constipation after surgery are also a thing—they can be incredibly painful but should pass after a few days.
Related: It’s Science: Chewing gum after a C-section can help you leave the hospital sooner
During this first week, caring for your incision is a top priority. Incisions take time to heal and may be sore for a few weeks or longer, but any significant pain should taper off after the first week (this doesn’t mean you won’t have any discomfort, just that it shouldn’t be severe). You’ll also likely experience C-section swelling and bruising around the incision sites.
Your care team will provide specific instructions on caring for your incisions before you leave the hospital, but keeping it clean with gentle soap and water and avoiding the bathtub or pool are usually advised. Glue or steri-strips should fall off on their own after a week or two. If you have staples, your doctor will remove them during a follow-up appointment.
Try to get up and move around as soon as you feel ready (this will help with pain, swelling, and constipation), but don’t overdo it. Slow and steady wins the C-section recovery race, mama. An abdominal binder may also help support your incisions as they heal and can make getting around easier. And you know that advice everyone gave you about asking for help? Now’s the time to take it!
As your uterus contracts back to size, you may also feel cramping similar to period cramps (although they can get stronger with each baby). These cramps may be more intense if you’re breastfeeding, as oxytocin promotes milk ejection and uterine cramping.
Related: A brief history of the C-section
Weeks 2 through 5
During these weeks, your incision site may still be sore, but you should feel much better than you did in the early days post-op. You can also expect some swelling and bruising to linger during these weeks (see below for more info about swelling).
This period is also when hormones really start to plummet. Mild mood changes or feelings of sadness can be expected but should only last for a few weeks postpartum. That’s not to say you won’t ever experience mood changes after a few weeks (hi sleep deprivation), but if you’re persistently sad, anxious, or overwhelmed, checking in with your OB-GYN is essential to rule out postpartum depression (PPD) or postpartum anxiety (PPA).
It’s also completely normal to have conflicting feelings about your birth experience. If you didn’t plan on having a C-section, you might hear people say, “The only thing that matters is that you have a healthy baby now.” But you can feel grateful and still feel sad about not having the birth you planned or wanted. All the hormone changes can compound your feelings, so give yourself the grace to feel whatever you need.
Related: Healing the emotional scars of a C-section
Your first postpartum follow-up appointment is usually scheduled around this time to check your incisions and ensure they are healing well. And PS, it’s also totally normal if it feels like a monumental task just to get yourself out of the house for this appointment.
Week 6 through 8
Congratulations! You made it through the bulk of C-section recovery. By week six, most mamas feel pretty close to their pre-pregnancy selves, though some may still be experiencing C-section swelling or bruising.
This is also the time when your OB-GYN will assess if you’re ready to start incorporating more exercise or sex, though you’ll want to ease back into things. (The most recent postpartum exercise guidelines recommend holding off on exercise until after 12 weeks rather than six, so it may still be a while before you’re getting back into moderate or high-intensity exercise.)
While not part of your typical postpartum appointment, visiting a pelvic floor physical therapist can also be helpful during C-section recovery to check for any diastasis recti (abdominal separation) that may have occurred during pregnancy and to help get your pelvic floor muscles back in tip-top shape. It’s also OK if you aren’t mentally ready for sex yet—give yourself time to heal and adjust to this new stage of life.
Related: What it’s like to recover from a C-section
A note on pain management
As you recover, please keep this important fact in mind: You do not have to suffer through this. If you are in pain, reach out for help. If you are still in the hospital, push that call bell and ask for your nurse. If you are home, call your OB or midwife. You do not have to deal with excessive pain, mama.
The most common pain management for home remedies for C-section recovery is Tylenol alternated with NSAIDs (like ibuprofen). But of course, check with your OB or midwife before taking anything, as every mama’s C-section recovery is different.
Related: 7 lies I believed about C-sections before I had one
Symptoms to watch out for
We hope your recovery is totally uneventful. But just in case, here are some big things to look out for. If you do have them, call your doctor or midwife right away (even if it’s 2 am):
- Multiple vaginal blood clots, or a blood clot that’s the size of a golf ball
- Heavy vaginal bleeding that fills a pad in an hour or two
- Lower belly tenderness
- Redness or drainage at your incision site
- Fever (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or above)
- Foul smelling or green/yellow vaginal discharge
- Severe headache
- Blurry or spotty vision
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Sharp pain in an area of your body (usually the leg) accompanied by warmth, redness and hardness
- Sharp or shooting breast pain, especially if accompanied by a hard spot, redness or a fever
- Feeling very sad or anxious, disconnected from your baby, not enjoying life, feeling excessively tired, or worrying about things often
Related: 10 C-section myths we’d like to clear up right now
Support for postpartum depression and other postpartum mood disorders
If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression or other postpartum mood disorders and curious about support and resources, reach out to the following services:
- The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline: 1-833-943-5746 (1-833-9-HELP4MOMS)
- Available in English and Spanish and in a completely confidential line.
- Postpartum Support International: 1-800-944-4773 (call or text)
- Available in English and Spanish
If you’re currently in crisis, immediate help is available via the following resources:
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call or text 988
- Available in English and Spanish
- National Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
C-section recovery tips
Here are a few recovery tips to follow with the goal of speeding up your healing:
- Avoid twisting or heavy lifting and opt for showers over baths
- Get plenty of rest—this is crucial for a speedy C-section recovery. Let other people hold the baby (if you are comfortable) and take a nap when you can
- Take painkillers as prescribed to manage discomfort
- Wear loose clothing that doesn’t rub against your incision site to help minimize irritation
- Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated—aim for at least 8 glasses of water a day
- Avoid constipation by drinking lots of fluids and eating plenty of high-fiber foods. If you are struggling with regular BMs, check in with your OB-GYN
- Walking is a great way to get some gentle exercise while also helping to reduce swelling and promote healing. Start with short walks and gradually increase the distance as you feel able
Related: 8 natural C-section recovery tips to help you feel better fast
What to know about C-section scarring
While the incision should heal by eight weeks, it can take much longer for your C-section scar to fade. You can minimize scars by using a C-section silicone scar patch that may help reduce the formation of keloids (raised, red scars). A moisturizing cream or oil containing vitamin E, cocoa butter, or olive oil can also help keep the skin hydrated and improve elasticity.
It’s also normal for a C-section scar to feel numb or tingly. This is because the nerves in the area have been cut during surgery. The numbness should gradually fade over time, but sometimes it can last. Massaging the scar can help reduce the numbness and help with scar tissue (but make sure you are completely healed first).
If your C-section scar becomes painful, swollen, or red, it’s time to check in with your OB-GYN.
Related: My C-section scar makes me feel like a warrior
What is a C-section shelf?
A C-section shelf is a small area of skin that protrudes from the lower part of the incision. As you heal, the skin can create adhesions where one of the layers becomes stuck to another layer, pulling the skin over muscle.
Not every mama with a C-section ends up with a C-section shelf, but it’s common. After the initial swelling goes down, you should see improvement; however, it may be something that never entirely goes away. Addressing diastasis recti can make a big difference, and scar massage may help loosen up some of the adhesions.
Swelling after a C-section
Water retention throughout pregnancy and IV fluids during surgery can cause swelling in your abdomen, legs and feet. It can take time for this to go away, but swelling should gradually reduce over the first few weeks postpartum.
You may also notice some swelling along the incision. According to Monte Swarup, MD, FACOG, board-certified OB-GYN and founder of HPD Rx, “Mild swelling above the incision is entirely normal for several weeks following a C-section. Directly above the incision is where a lot of the dissection occurs surgically which leads to swelling there.”
However, in some cases excessive swelling around your incision can be a sign of an infection. Check-in with your OB-GYN if you notice any redness, heat, or extra pain along with swelling.
Related: Swelling after a C-section may be common, but is it normal to swell above the incision?
Breastfeeding after a C-section
You can absolutely breastfeed after a C-section, but finding a comfortable breastfeeding position that doesn’t bother your incision can be tricky sometimes.
If you’re having trouble getting started, talk to a lactation consultant or your OB-GYN. They can help you troubleshoot and find a position that works for you, but some positions may be more comfortable than others. For example, the football hold allows you to cradle your baby against your chest while they feed. Instead of the common cross-cradle hold, the football hold positions baby on the outside of your body. You can use a pillow or two to support your arm and keep your baby close.
Side-lying is another position that helps reduce stress on your C-section incision. Lie on your side with your baby facing you. You can use a pillow behind your back for support and another pillow between your legs.
Related: Breastfeeding after C-section? How one mama’s experience turned empowering
Exercise after a C-section
There’s absolutely no need to rush back to the gym after having a baby, but getting some gentle postpartum exercise can help speed up your recovery. Walking is a great place to start. Just be sure to listen to your body and take it easy at first.
Once you are cleared for exercise by your OB-GYN, you can slowly add other activities like swimming, yoga and lightweight training. If you’ve exercised throughout your pregnancy, you may be able to return to your pre-pregnancy workout routine a little sooner, but the most important thing is to pay attention to how your body feels.
Heads up: If you have diastasis recti or any pelvic floor weakness, jumping into advanced core exercises or high-intensity workouts with a lot of jumping isn’t a great idea for your abs or spine. If you are concerned, check in with a physical therapist or personal trainer specializing in postpartum support.
Related: Can you exercise during pregnancy and postpartum? Yes, and here’s how
Sex after a C-section
Are you feeling a little hesitant about intimacy post C-section? Completely normal. It can be a confusing mix of feeling disconnected from your partner but also not quite ready to get physical (this goes for birth in general and not just after a C-section).
If you feel ready as soon as you’re cleared by your doctor, high-five to you! But for some women, sex doesn’t feel the same postpartum, either physically or psychologically. Hormones can mess with natural lubrication, or you may feel touched out after being with a baby all day. Like anything else with motherhood, it’s a stage that usually passes, and you’ll find your way back to each other as your baby gets older.
Related: According to data, there’s a sweet spot for when your sex life returns after kids
Once you get the green light, all positions are OK unless you notice irritation around your incision. Any significant pain during sex warrants a chat with your OB-GYN. They can help you figure out if the pain is coming from your C-section incision or if there’s another issue.
In the meantime, there are plenty of other ways to build intimacy with your partner that don’t involve sex. Cuddling, kissing and massages—or even sitting side by side to watch a movie can help you find some alone time when sex isn’t an option.
Frequently asked questions about C-section recovery
Q. How long will I bleed after a C-section?
Some women are surprised that they experience bleeding from the vagina (called lochia) even if they didn’t have a vaginal delivery. Why does this happen? The area where the placenta was attached to your uterus creates a wound that bleeds as it heals. Your uterus is also shrinking to its pre-pregnancy size, which can cause bleeding. Postpartum bleeding usually lasts about six weeks after birth, starting heavier but tapering off after a few weeks. Pads are your best friend during this time!
Read more: Postpartum bleeding: How much is too much?
Q. Why do I still look pregnant after my C-section?
Despite what you see in those unrealistic before and after photos on social media, it’s very normal to look pregnant after giving birth. Think about how long it took your uterus to grow to accommodate your baby—it’s going to take some time for it to shrink back down again. For most women, it takes at least six weeks for the uterus to return to its pre-pregnancy size. Be gentle with yourself during this time, and remember that every body is different.
Read more: One mama’s moving post about bounce-back culture: ‘We’re growing forward’
Q. What to eat after a C-section for fast recovery
Staying nourished is an essential part of the C-section recovery process. Any added stress on the body—especially surgery—requires extra nutrients to heal. And if you’re breastfeeding, you may need even more.
Protein is essential for wound healing, so include foods like chicken, fish, tofu, legumes, and eggs in your diet. Incorporate plenty of fruits and vegetables for their vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These nutrients will also help support your immune system.
Keep taking your prenatal vitamin to fill in any nutritional needs as you heal and to support milk supply. And finally, be sure to stay hydrated by sipping on water, herbal tea, and other fluids throughout the day.
Read more: 7 things to do now to rock your C-section recovery
Q. What should I keep in my C-section recovery kit?
Looking for products that can help with your C-section recovery? Here’s what can help make the healing process a little easier:
- Pads for postpartum bleeding
- A heating pad for cramps and discomfort
- Nursing bras and pads
- Water bottle for easy hydration
- Loose clothing to make post C-section life a little more comfortable
- High-waisted underwear that doesn’t irritate your incision
- Nipple cream for sore breasts
- A C-section belly binder to support your core and lower back until you feel stronger
- Hemorrhoid pads because, let’s be honest, pregnancy and birth is no picnic for your backside either
- Scar cream and silicone sheets for your C-section scar
Read more: 17 C-section recovery products that make life easier
Pick up these C-section recovery products to help speed up the healing process
A version of this story was originally published on June 14. 2018. It has been updated.